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Colbert Ridge to Winter Star Mountain October 9, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Black Mountains, hiking.
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Looking from Colbert Ridge over to Potato Hill

Yesterday morning I thought I was going to go crazy. Here’s the situation. On my hike the other day up Trout Branch, my knee popped out of joint. This has happened before, but the frequency and the severity have increased in the past few months. I noticed the joint stiffening as I descended the mountain, and the following morning I was hardly able to go up or down stairs. No big deal— right? Just take it easy for a few days.

Except that the very next day I was scheduled to join a group of six for an  off-trail backpack to Three Forks, up into the deep, wild headwaters of Raven Fork. I’d been looking forward to this trip since mid-August, when it was first proposed. It took half a day before I finally faced reality and gave up on the Three Forks idea. It would be harder to imagine a more tortuous workout for a strained knee: the extra weight of the overnight pack combined with all the jumping, crawling, twisting, swinging legs over blowdowns, etc., etc. So I told my friends I couldn’t join them on this Friday-to-Sunday adventure.

I made it through Friday rather unhappily, woke up Saturday to yet another of the clear, brilliant days we have been dealt out this past week. These glowing days have been strung together like beads on a bracelet, with that gemlike translucency and play of light.

I simply had to get out to the mountains. A trail hike, not a bushwhack: with the much narrower range of motion involved, I’d be less likely to aggravate the injury. The stiffening had subsided somewhat. Take the poles, move carefully—I could do it. I opted for one of the ridges that approaches the Black Mountain crest from the east. I’d take Colbert Ridge this time, not Woody Ridge. The latter is one of my favorite exercise hikes, but it would be too steep for the knee. It rises 3000 feet in two miles. Colbert takes twice the distance to achieve the same vertical.

On my drive over along the Blue Ridge Parkway, I got a preview of the Black Mountain crest.

My route would hit the crest at Deep Gap, the indentation over toward the right

I reached the trailhead off Hwy. 80—that pretty road that follows the South Toe River valley—had a friendly chat with a guy who appeared to be living out of his van at the trailhead, and headed up into the world of bright colors.

What is it about the flame colors that amazes us so much?

But the pinks and yellows make it even better.

The contrast with the deep green rhodo leaves was also pleasing.

This maple was on fire.

I saw few wildflowers, mainly purple aster in the lower elevations and gentian scattered further up. These shades of purple and blue did just a tiny bit to dampen down the oranges and reds to the point that my eyeballs were not completely seared by the heat. I was looking at a clump of gentian when I noticed the tell-tale wobble that indicated a bee was feasting deep inside the blossom. I managed to catch a shot of the bee when it emerged.

Bee emerges from gentian.

Then the bee dived down into the next blossom. You can just barely make out the hind feet sticking out here!

Plunging down inside for more pollen. (Click for zoom.)

The oaks are a bit more subdued than the maples, but I liked the shapes and colors here.

Chestnut oak. Nice contrast between scalloped edges and straight lines of the veins.

This northern red oak was partway through its transformation.

Harlequin leaves of red maple.

Glossy galax.

As I passed the 5000′ elevation mark, I entered the deeper, darker forest of spruce, and the trail grew rockier and steeper. I’d been leapfrogging a group of three young guys backpacking. They knew I had an altimeter, and they asked me each time what their elevation was. “4170!” I’d call out, or “5250! You’re in the home stretch now!” I was somewhat embarrassed not to be going much faster than a group with overnight packs.

But I surged ahead on the steep part (“surged” is a slight exaggeration—oh well, it’s my blog, I can do that if I want!) and reached the crest just north of Deep Gap, at 5800′. I turned away from the gap to climb Winter Star, 6203′. I passed some nice mountain ash along the way. I was back in the familiar boreal forest.

Mountain ash berries.

The summit of Winter Star was definitely the ugliest, drabbest place I visited all day.

The uninspiring summit of Winter Star.

I touched my toe to the actual summit bump out of old peakbagger habits. I’d passed within a few feet of it in July 2010 on a backpack along the crest, but that was not a peakbagging trip. I still don’t consider myself to be working on the SB6K, despite whatever Peter Barr says.

Not far below the summit, I stopped in a warm, sunny spot to have lunch. The funny thing about the spot was, the rocks looked as windblown as the trees.

View southward toward Potato Hill and Cattail Peak (more of those 6Ks---the Black Mountain range has more than its share).

On my way back down, I encountered more backpackers. It seemed everyone was planning on camping at Deep Gap and doing either an up-and-back or had some kind of car shuttle arrangement to go out at Mt. Mitchell. I had accomplished my own personal goal—to avoid going crazy.

Strange-looking rock near Winter Star summit

Buncombe Horse Range trail September 6, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Black Mountains, hiking.
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The "Meadow of Uncertainty"

The Buncombe Horse Range trail is quite a strange trail. First of all, its 17-mile length is divided into three distinct sections that seem completely disconnected from each other. I hiked only the 4.6-mile southernmost portion, which connects the Black Mountain campground road in the South Toe River valley with a point at 5400′ near the Blue Ridge Parkway. The next section is considered part of the Mountains to Sea trail and goes from that point to Commissary Hill. There, the MST departs to share the pathway of the Mt. Mitchell trail. The final section of the BHRT meanders along the lower flanks of the Blacks to end up at Colbert Creek near the Carolina Hemlock campground.

Then there is that weird name. Why Buncombe Horse Range trail? (As a friend of mine asked.) Why not just Buncombe Horse trail? Does the trail feature free-ranging horses? (Not as far as I could tell.) And it should also be pointed out that the trail is not in Buncombe County, it is in Yancey County. Perhaps Edward Buncombe, the Revolutionary War colonel for whom the county was named, rambled the slopes of the Black Mountains on horseback. (Yancey, like Haywood, Henderson, Madison, and McDowell Counties, was once part of Buncombe.)

And finally, there is the silliness of the name Buncombe itself. The Wikipedia article on the county has a good explanation: In the Sixteenth Congress, after lengthy debate on the Missouri Compromise, members of the House called for an immediate vote on that important question. Instead, Felix Walker rose to address his colleagues, insisting that his constituents expected him to make a speech “for Buncombe.” It was later remarked that Walker’s untimely and irrelevant oration was not just for Buncombe—it “was Buncombe.” Thus, buncombe, afterwards spelled bunkum and then shortened to bunk, became a term for empty, nonsensical talk.

It was late Saturday morning when I completed some errands and decided that I had to get out of the house. I got out my South Toe/Mt. Mitchell map and cast my eye over the Blacks, looking for something I hadn’t done before. That southern section of the BHRT jumped out at me. It would be a climb of close to 2000 feet, a very moderate grade compared with, say, the Woody Ridge trail to Celo Knob, but it would get me up into the spruce forest and provide a bit of exercise.

The lower end of the trail follows an old grade that switchbacks its way up the lower slope of Clingmans Peak.

The trail followed an old, wide grade

The forest here was fairly nondescript, but every now and then I spotted some pink turtlehead and a yellow flower that I mentally labeled “heliopsis.” I now realize this was incorrect, but I can’t figure out whether this is helianthus, coreopsis, or rudbeckia (each of which has numerous species).

I'll just call it "a cheery yellow flower"

After a mile or so, the grade became pleasantly grassy.

Grassy grade

Just as I was strolling easily, daydreaming my way along, the trail turned off the grade and entered a meadow (see photo at top). There the trail disappeared entirely—I mean truly disappeared. Crisscrossing the meadow were faint indications that some human or animal had passed there, but there were so many of these barely perceptible indentations that no single one could be used as a guide. I was surprised to see a clump of miscanthus (maiden grass) growing there. It is an ornamental grass frequently used in landscaping.

Out-of-place clump of miscanthus

I knew the trail went west, so I got out my compass and walked to the end of the meadow. Passing through a clump of trees, I entered a second meadow, equally trackless. But I kept going, and at last picked up the trail again where it entered the forest. My surroundings changed dramatically as soon as I exited the meadow.

I suddenly entered galax-carpeted forest

As I continued along, I started encountering wooden steps. They seemed completely unnecessary.

Superfluous steps

Some of the construction was quite elaborate.

Elaborate, and equally superfluous

It was quite odd.

Finally I got up into the spruce forest and reached a pretty viewpoint across the valley of the Right Prong South Toe River.

Mist was closing in

I always like the pointed shapes of the evergreens along the high ridges, and the contrast of those points with the rounded hardwoods.

Up into the pointy trees

It looked as though rain might be on its way, so I headed back down. Recrossing the “Meadow of Uncertainty,” I had a nice view of Green Knob.

Green Knob in the background

I enjoyed the feeling of being surrounded by wildflowers of all kinds. The lower section of the trail went very quickly, and soon I found myself back at my car.

Surrounded by goldenrod

Black Mountain crest July 8, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Black Mountains, hiking.
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Sunrise from camp at Deep Gap

Three of us set forth to traverse the ridge of the Black Mountains. We started at the northern terminus of the Black Mountain Crest trail at Bowlens Creek, hiked eight miles to Deep Gap (approximately 3500 vertical feet total). The second day, we journeyed from Deep Gap about 4.5 miles (the information sources vary on the mileage) to the summit of Mt. Mitchell and returned to Deep Gap for a second night. It’s hard to estimate the elevation gain for Day Two with all of its little ups and downs over 6000+ peaks, but it is probably around 2200 feet out and back. The third day, we descended 3.7 miles and 2900 vertical feet on the Colbert Ridge trail to our shuttled car.

Our team consisted of Terri Cox, Nan Woodbury, and myself.

It would have been possible to combine the itineraries of the second and third days, but our idea was to relax on the summit of The Highest Point East Of The Mississippi (6,684′) and simply to enjoy being up on the crest of a range that is remarkable in its dimensions. Also, there were a few foot issues.

Nan experimented with solutions for Terri's feet

Terri is a very experienced backpacker who doesn’t usually have foot problems. But a new pair of Asolo boots just seemed to be determined to destroy her feet.  We tried combinations of bandaids, duct tape, gauze cut into different shapes, and medical tape. Nothing really worked. At the very end of the outing, Terri was wearing an Asolo boot on the less problematic foot and a Teva-type sandal on the other.

I don’t usually have foot problems either, but my legs and feet were not a pretty sight.

Well, some of the bruises and scratches dated back

It seemed to be the combination of full packs, the rugged and rocky ups and downs, and socks that were especially, delightfully sweaty (stinky too, of course) from the unusually warm conditions.

It took us a little bit of driving back and forth to find the Bowlens Creek trailhead (which is more of an ATV trail that turns into a footpath). The magic words are: Water Shed Road, off state road 1109 south of Burnsville. That is your ticket to success.

The climb was fairly gradual through anonymous hardwoods, then into red spruce, and finally out onto the crest near Celo Knob (6327′). The trail is a bit overgrown in this northern section.

Can you see the trail?

We waded through blackberries, St. Johns Wort, and generally a profusion of green leafy vegetation. We got our first views looking south along the crest.

Looking south from near Celo Knob

In case anyone is wondering, no, we didn’t go over the summits that were bypassed by the trail. This wasn’t a peakbagging mission.

Much to our surprise, after we made the tough descent from Winter Star (6203′), we found about 30 people camping in Deep Gap (5700′). There was a trail crew, a youth group, and what looked like several large family groups. There wasn’t a lot of space for our tents, but we found what turned out to be quite a nice flat, grassy spot to pitch them side by side.

A bit dark---Nan and Terri, and our three side-by-side tents

On both of our outings, my companions have completely put me to shame with their tasty, complex menus of backpacking food. Fortunately, it doesn’t actually bother me that much to be the “boring food person.” I had Thai noodles with Spam. Hmm, maybe that’s weird enough not to be boring.

So we climbed over (or close to) the summits of Cattail Peak (6600′), Balsam Cone (6611′), Big Tom (6581′), Mt. Craig (6647′), and finally to Mitchell. The ascents and descents were rocky and steep, and reminded me very much of northern New England: the balsams and spruce, the mountain ash and birch, the northern plants like Clintonia lily. There were a couple of steep, rocky places where a fixed rope had been provided. I didn’t think the ropes were necessary, but some people (like a cheery guy that we passed) thought they were fun. I realize I’m a New England hiking snob: there are many places like Huntington Ravine, Great Gulf, King Ravine, Great Gully, and the Castles that are harder and don’t have ropes. But that’s okay.

Looking from Mt. Craig to Mt. Mitchell

The closer we got to the top of Mitchell, the more improved the trail became, until it turned into something like a walkway in a formal garden.

Quite different from trail conditions further north!

So we lunched, went up to the observation deck, and generally milled around the summit for a while.

Jenny near Mitchell summit

We took our time getting back to Deep Gap and had a relaxing dinner before settling in for the night. The next day, our descent into Colbert Ridge was punctuated by episodes of Foot Issues, but we made it down to the car, shuttled back to the north, and enjoyed a patch of incredibly delicious ripe blackberries (people driving by were slowing down and staring at the three women who were picking the berries with remarkable speed and efficiency, tasting all along the way)!

Resting on the return from Mitchell to Deep Gap